Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 39

The size and position of the Highlands of Scotland rendered them much less susceptible of improvement than the Border districts, which, far less extensive, and less difficult of access, were now placed between two civilized and peaceful countries, instead of being the frontier of two hostile lands.

The Highlanders, on the contrary, continued the same series of wars among themselves, and incursions upon their Lowland neighbours, which had distinguished them even since the dawn of their history. Military adventure, in one form or other, was their delight as well as their employment, and all works of industry were considered as unworthy the dignity of a mountaineer. Even the necessary task of raising a scanty crop of barley, was assigned to the aged, and to the women and children. The men thought of nothing but hunting and war. I will give you an account of a Highland chieftain, in character and practice not very different from that of Allan-a-Sop, the Hebridean.

The Stewarts, who inhabited the district of Appin, in the West Highlands, were a numerous and warlike clan. Appin is the title of the chief of the clan. The second branch of the family was that of Invernahyle. The founder, a second son of the house of Appin, was called by the uncommon epithet of Saioleach, or the Peaceful. One of his neighbours was the Lord of Dunstaffnage, called Cailen Uaine, or Green Colin, from the green colour which predominated in his tartan. This Green Colin surprised the peaceful Laird of Invernahyle, assassinated him, burnt his house, and destroyed his whole family, excepting an infant at the breast. This infant did not owe its safety to the mercy of Green Colin, but to the activity and presence of mind of its nurse. Finding she could not escape the pursuit of that chief’s attendants, the faithful nurse determined to provide for the safety of her foster-child, whose life she knew was aimed at, in the only manner which remained. She therefore hid the infant in a small fissure, or cave, of a rock, and, as the only means she had of supplying him with subsistence, hung by a string round his neck a large piece of lard, in the faint hope that instinct might induce the child to employ it as a means of subsistence. The poor woman had only time to get a little way from the place where she had concealed her charge, when she was made prisoner by the pursuers. As she denied any knowledge where the child was, they dismissed her as a person of no consequence, but not until they had kept her two or three days in close confinement, menacing her with death unless she would discover what she had done with the infant.

When she found herself at liberty and unobserved, she went to the hole in which she had concealed her charge, with little hope save of finding such relics as wolves, wild-cats, or birds of prey might have left after feasting upon its flesh, but still with the pious wish to consign the remains of her dault, or foster-child, to some place of Christian burial. But her joy and surprise were extreme to find the infant still alive and well, having lived during her absence by sucking the lard, which it had reduced to a very small morsel, scarce larger than a hazel nut. The delighted nurse made all haste to escape with her charge to the neighbouring district of Moidart, of which she was a native, being the wife of the smith of the clan of MacDonald, to whom that country belonged. The mother of the infant thus miraculously rescued had also been a daughter of this tribe.

To ensure the safety of her foster-child, the nurse persuaded her husband to bring it up as their own son. The smith, you must remark, of a Highland tribe, was a person of considerable consequence. His skill in forging armour and weapons was usually united with dexterity in using them, and with the strength of body which his profession required. If I recollect right, the smith usually ranked as third officer in the chief’s household. The young Donald Stewart, as he grew up, was distinguished for great personal strength. He became skilful in his foster-father’s art, and so powerful, that he could, it is said, wield two fore-hammers, one in each hand, for hours together. From this circumstance, he gained the name of Donuil nan Ord, that is, Donald of the Hammer, by which he was all his life distinguished.

When he attained the age of twenty-one, Donald’s foster-father, the smith, observing that his courage and enterprise equalled his personal strength, thought fit to discover to him the secret of his birth, the injuries which he had received from Green Colin of Dunstaffnage, and the pretensions which he had to the property of Invernahyle, now in the possession of the man who had slain his father, and usurped his inheritance. He concluded his discovery by presenting to his beloved foster-child his own six sons to be his followers and defenders for life and death, and his assistants in the recovery of his patrimony.

Law of every description was unknown in the Highlands. Young Donald proceeded in his enterprise by hostile measures. In addition to his six foster-brethren, he got some assistance from his mother’s kindred, and levied among the old adherents of his father, and his kinsmen of the house of Appin, such additional force, that he was able to give battle to Green Colin, whom he defeated and slew, regaining at the same time his father’s house and estate of Invernahyle. This success had its dangers; for it placed the young chief in feud with all the families of the powerful clan of Campbell, to which the slain Dunstaffnage belonged by alliance at least; for Green Colin and his ancestors had assumed the name, and ranked themselves under the banner, of this formidable clan, although originally they were chieftains of a different and independent race. The feud became more deadly, when, not satisfied with revenging himself on the immediate authors of his early misfortune, Donald made inroads on the Campbells in their own dominions; in evidence of which his historian quotes a verse to this purpose —

“Donald of the Smithy, the Son of the Hammer,

Filled the banks of Lochawe with mourning and clamour.”

At length the powerful Earl of Argyle resented the repeated injuries which were offered to his clansmen and kindred. The Stewarts of Appin refused to support the kinsman against an enemy so formidable, and insisted that he should seek for peace with the earl. So that Donald, left to himself, and sensible that he was unable to withstand the force which might be brought against him by this mighty chief, endeavoured to propitiate the earl’s favour by placing himself in his hands.

Stewart went, accordingly, with only a single attendant, towards Inverary, the castle of Argyle, and met with the earl himself at some distance in the open fields. Donald of the Hammer showed on this occasion that it was not fear which had induced him to this step. Being a man of ready wit, and a poet, which was an accomplishment high in the estimation of the Highlanders, he opened the conference with an extempore verse, which intimated a sort of defiance, rather like the language of a man that cared not what might befall him, than one who craved mercy or asked forgiveness.

“Son of dark Colin, thou dangerous earl,

Small is the boon that I crave at thy hand;

Enough, if in safety from bondage and peril,

Thou let’st me return to my kindred and land.”

The earl was too generous to avail himself of the advantage which Invernahyle’s confidence had afforded him, but he could not abstain from maintaining the conversation thus begun, in a gibing tone. Donuil nan Ord was harsh-featured, and had a custom, allied to his mode of education, and the haughtiness of his character, of throwing back his head, and laughing loudly with his mouth wide open. In ridicule of this peculiarity, in which Donald had indulged repeatedly, Argyle, or one of his attendants, pointed out to his observation a rock in the neighbourhood, which bore a singular resemblance to a human face, with a large mouth much thrown back, and open as if laughing a horse-laugh. “Do you see yonder crag?” said the earl to Donald of the Hammer; “it is called Gaire Granda, or the Ugly Laugh.” Donald felt this intended gibe, and as Argyle’s lady was a hard-favoured and haughty woman, he replied without hesitation, in a verse like the following:

“Ugly the sneer of yon cliff of the hill,

Nature has stamp’d the grim laugh on the place;

Would you seek for a grimmer and uglier still,

You will find it at home in your countess’s face.”

Argyle took the raillery of Donald in good part, but would not make peace with him, until he agreed to make two creaghs, or inroads, one on Moidart, and one on Athole. It seems probable that the purpose of Argyle was to engage his troublesome neighbour in a feud with other clans to whom he bore no good-will; for whether he of the Hammer fell or was successful, the earl, in either event, would gain a certain advantage. Donald accepted peace with the Campbells on these terms.

On his return home, Donald communicated to MacDonald of Moidart the engagement he had come under; and that chieftain, his mother’s kinsman and ally, concerted that Invernahyle and his band should plunder certain villages in Moidart, the inhabitants of which had offended him, and on whom he desired chastisement should be inflicted. The incursion of Donald the Hammerer punished them to some purpose, and so far he fulfilled his engagement to Argyle, without making an enemy of his own kinsman. With the Athole men, as more distant and unconnected with him Donald stood on less ceremony, and made more than one successful creagh upon them. His name was now established as one of the most formidable marauders known in the Highlands, and a very bloody action which he sustained against the family of the Grahams of the Monteith, made him still more dreaded.

The Earls of Monteith, you must know, had a castle situated upon an island in the lake, or loch, as it is called, of the same name. But though this residence, which occupied almost the whole of the islet upon which its ruins still exist, was a strong and safe place of abode, and adapted accordingly to such perilous times, it had this inconvenience, that the stables, cow-houses, poultry-yard, and other domestic offices, were necessarily separated from the castle, and situated on the mainland, as it would have been impossible to be constantly transporting the animals belonging to the establishment, to and fro from the shore to the island. These offices, therefore, were constructed on the banks of the lake, and in some sort defenceless.

It happened upon a time that there was to be a great entertainment in the castle, and a number of the Grahams were assembled. The occasion, it is said, was a marriage in the family. To prepare for this feast, much provision was got ready, and in particular a great deal of poultry had been collected. While the feast was preparing, an unhappy chance brought Donald of the Hammer to the side of the lake, returning at the head of a band of hungry followers, whom he was conducting homewards to the West Highlands, after some of his usual excursions into Stirlingshire. Seeing so much good victuals ready, and being possessed of an excellent appetite, the Western Highlanders neither asked questions, nor waited for an invitation, but devoured all the provisions that had been prepared for the Grahams, and then went on their way rejoicing, through the difficult and dangerous path, which leads from the banks of the Loch of Monteith, through the mountains, to the side of Loch Katrine.

The Grahams were filled with the highest indignation. No one in those fierce times was so contemptible as an individual who would suffer himself to be plundered without exacting satisfaction and revenge, and the loss of their dinner probably aggravated the sense of the insults entertained by the guests. The company who were assembled at the castle of Monteith, headed by the earl himself, hastily took to their boats, and, disembarking on the northern side of the lake, pursued with all speed the marauders and their leader. They came up with Donald’s party in the gorge of a pass, near a rock, called Craig–Vad, or the Wolf’s Cliff. Here the Grahams called, with loud insults, on the Appin men to stand, and one of them, in allusion to the execution which had been done amongst the poultry, exclaimed in verse —

“They’re brave gallants, these Appin men,

To twist the throat of cock and hen?” Donald instantly replied to the reproach —

“And if we be of Appin’s line,

We’ll twist a goose’s neck in thine.”

So saying, he shot the unlucky scoffer with an arrow. The battle then began, and was continued with much fury till night. The Earl of Monteith and many of his noble kinsmen fell, while Donald, favoured by darkness, escaped with a single attendant. The Grahams obtained, from the cause of the quarrel, the nickname of Gramoch an Garrigh, or Grahams of the Hens: although they certainly lost no honour in the encounter, having fought like game-cocks.

Donald of the Hammer was twice married. His second marriage was highly displeasing to his eldest son, whom he had by his first wife. This young man, whose name of Duncan, seems to have partaken rather of the disposition of his grandfather, Alister Saoileach, or the Peaceful, than of the turbulent spirit of his father the Hammerer. He quitted the family mansion in displeasure at his father’s second marriage, and went to a farm called Inverfalla, which his father had bestowed upon his nurse in reward for her eminent services. Duncan took up his abode with this valued connexion of the family, who was now in the extremity of old age, and amused himself with attempting to improve the cultivation of the farm; a task which not only was considered as below the dignity of a Highland gentleman, but even regarded as the last degree of degradation.

The idea of his son’s occupying himself with agricultural operations, struck so much shame and anger into the heart of Donald of Hammerer, that his resentment against him became ungovernable. At length, as he walked by his own side of the river, and looked towards Inverfalla, he saw, to his extreme displeasure, a number of men employed in digging and levelling the soil for some intended crop. Soon after, he had the additional mortification to see his son come out and mingle with the workmen, as if giving them directions; and, finally, beheld him take the spade out of an awkward fellow’s hand, and dig a little himself, to show him how to use it. This last act of degeneracy drove the Hammerer frantic; he seized a curragh, or boat covered with hides, which was near, jumped into it, and pushed across the stream, with the determination of destroying the son, who had, in his opinion, brought such unutterable disgrace upon his family. The poor agriculturist, seeing his father approach in such haste, and having a shrewd guess of the nature of his parental intentions, fled into the house and hid himself. Donald followed with his drawn weapon; but, deceived by passion and darkness, he plunged his sword into the body of one whom he saw lying on the bed-clothes. Instead of his son, for whom the blow was intended, it lighted on the old foster-mother, to whom he owed his life in infancy and education in youth, and slew her on the spot. After this misfortune, Donald became deeply affected with remorse; and giving up all his estates to his children, he retired to the Abbey of St. Columbus, in Iona, passed the remainder of his days as a monk, and died at the age of eighty-seven.

It may easily be believed, that there was little peace and quiet in a country abounding with such men as the Hammerer, who thought the practice of honest industry on the part of a gentleman was an act of degeneracy, for which nothing short of death was an adequate punishment; so that the disorderly state of the highlands was little short of that of the Isles. Still, however, many of the principal chiefs attended occasionally at the court of Scotland; others were frequently obliged to send their sons to be educated there, who were retained as hostages for the peaceable behaviour of the clan; so that by degrees they came to improve with the increasing civilisation of the times.

The authority also of the great nobles, who held estates in or adjacent to the Highlands, was a means, though a rough one, of making the district over which they exercised their power, submit, in a certain degree, to the occasional influence of the laws. It is true, that the great Earls of Huntly, Argyle, Sutherland, and other nobles, did not enforce the Lowland institutions upon their Highland vassals out of mere zeal for their civilisation, but rather because, by taking care to secure the power of the sovereign and the laws on their own side, they could make the infraction of them by the smaller chiefs the pretext for breaking down the independent clans, and making them submit to their own authority.

I will give you an example of the manner in which a noble lady chastised a Highland chief in the reign of James the Sixth. The head of the House of Gordon, then Marquis of Huntly, was by far the most powerful lord in the northern counties, and exercised great influence over the Highland clans who in habited the mountains of Badenoch, which lay behind his extensive domains. One of the most ancient bribes situated in and near that district is that of MacIntosh, a word which means Child of the Thane, as they boasts their descent from MacDuff, the celebrated Thane of Fife. This haughty race having fallen at variance with the Gordons, William MacIntosh, their chief, carried his enmity to so great a pitch, as to surprise and burn the castle of Auchindown, belonging to the Gordon family. The Marquis of Huntly vowed the severest vengeance. He moved against the MacIntoshes with his own followers; and he let loose upon the devoted tribe, al such neighbouring clans as would do any thing, as the old phrase was, for his love or for his fear. MacIntosh, after a short struggle, found himself unequal to sustain the conflict, and saw that he must either behold his clan totally exterminated, or contrive some mode of pacifying Huntly’s resentment. The idea of the first alternative was not to be endured, and of the last he saw no chance, save by surrendering himself into the power of the marquis, and thus personally atoning for the offence which he had committed. To perform this act of generous devotion with as much chance of safety as possible, he chose a time when the marquis himself was absent, and asking for the lady, whom he judged likely to prove less inexorable than her husband, he presented himself as the unhappy Laird of MacIntosh, who came to deliver himself up to the Gordon, to answer for his burning of Auchindown, and only desired that Huntly would spare his clan. The marchioness, a stern and haughty woman, had shared deeply in her husband’s resentment. She regarded MacIntosh with a keen eye, as the hawk or eagle contemplates the prey within its clutch, and having spoken a word aside to her attendants, replied to the suppliant chief in this manner:— “MacIntosh, you have offended the Gordon so deeply, that Huntly has sworn by his father’s soul, that he will never pardon you, till he has brought your neck to the block.” — “I will stoop even to that humiliation, to secure the safety of my father’s house,” said MacIntosh. And as this interview passed in the kitchen of the castle at Bog of Gicht, he undid the collar of his doublet, and kneeling down before the huge block on which, in the rude hospitality of the time, the slain bullocks and sheep were broken up for use, he laid his neck upon it, expecting, doubtless, that the lady would be satisfied with this token of unreserved submission. But the inexorable marchioness made a sign to the cook, who stepped forward with his hatchet raised, and struck MacIntosh’s head from his body.

Another story, and I will change the subject. It is also of the family of Gordon; not that they were by any means more hard-hearted then other Scottish barons, who had feuds with the Highlanders, but because it is the readiest which occurs to my recollection. The Farquharsons of Deeside, a bold and warlike people, inhabiting the dales of Braemar, had taken offence at, and slain, a gentleman of consequence, named Gordon of Brackley. The Marquis of Huntly summoned his forces, to take a bloody vengeance for the death of a Gordon; and that none of the guilty tribe might escape, communicated with the Laird of Grant, a very powerful chief, who was an ally of Huntly, and a relation, I believe, to the slain Baron of Brackley. — They agreed, that, on a day appointed, Grant, with his clan in arms, should occupy the upper end of the vale of Dee, and move from thence downwards, while the Gordons should ascent the river from beneath, each party killing, burning, and destroying, without mercy, whatever and whomever they found before them. A terrible massacre was made of the Farquharsons, taken at unawares, and placed betwixt two enemies. Almost all the men and women of the race were slain, and when the day was done, Huntly found himself encumbered with about two hundred orphan children, whose parents had been killed. What became of them you shall presently hear.

About a year after this foray, the Laird of Grant chanced to dine at the Marquis’s castle. He was, of course, received with kindness, and entertained with magnificence. After dinner was over, Huntly said to his guest, that he would show him some rare sport. Accordingly, he conducted Grant to a balcony, which, as was frequent in old mansions, overlooked the kitchen, perhaps to permit the lady to give an occasional eye to the operations there. The numerous servants of the marquis and his visitors had already dined, and Grant beheld the remains of the victuals which had furnished a plentiful meal, flung at random into a large trough, like that out of which swine feed. While Grant was wondering what this could mean, the master cook gave a signal with his silver whistle; on which a hatch, like that of a dog kennel, was raised, and there rushed into the kitchen, some shrieking, some shouting, some yelling — not a pack of hounds, which, in number, noise, and tumult, they greatly resembled, but a huge mob of children, half naked, and totally wild in their manners, who threw themselves on the contents of the trough, and fought, struggled, bit, scratched, and clamoured, each to get the largest share. Grant was a man of humanity, and did not see in that degrading scene all the amusement which his noble host had intended to afford him. “In the name of Heaven,” he said, “who are these unfortunate creatures that are fed like so many pigs?” — “They are the children of those Farquharsons whom we slew last year on Dee-side,” answered Huntly. The laird felt more shocked than it would have been prudent or polite to express. “My lord,” he said, “my sword helped to make these poor children orphans, and it is not fair that your lordship should be burdened with all the expense of maintaining them. You have supported them for a year and day — allow me now to take them to Castle–Grant, and keep them for the same period at my cost.” Huntly was tired of the joke of the pig-trough, and willingly consented to have the undisciplined rabble of children taken off his hands. He troubled himself no more about them; and the Laird of Grant, carrying them to his castle, had them dispersed among his clan, and brought up decently, giving them his own name of Grant; but it is said their descendants are still called the Race of the Trough, to distinguish them from the families of the tribe into which they were adopted.

These are instances of the severe authority exercised by the great barons over their Highland neighbours and vassals. Still that authority produced a regard to the laws, which they would not otherwise have received. These might lords, though possessed of great power in their jurisdictions, never effected entire independence, as had been done by the old Lords of the Isles, who made peace and war with England, without the consent of the King of Scotland. On the contrary, Argyle, Huntly, Murray, and others, always used at least the pretext of the King’s name and authority, and were, from habit and education, less apt to practise wild stretches of arbitrary power that the native chiefs of the Highlands. In proportion, therefore, as the influence of the nobles increased, the country approached more nearly to civilisation.

It must not here be forgotten, that the increase of power acquired by the sovereign, in the person of James VI, had been felt severely by one of his great feudal lords, for exercising violence and oppression, even in the most distant extremity of the empire. The Earl of Orkney, descended from a natural son of James V, and of course a cousin-german of the reigning monarch, had indulged himself in extravagant excesses of arbitrary authority amongst the wild recesses of the Orkney and Zetland islands. He had also, it was alleged, shown some token of a wish to assume sovereign power, and had caused his natural son to defend the castle of Kirkwall, by force of arms, against the King’s troops. Mr Littlejohn is now something of a Latin scholar, and he will understand, that this wicked Earl of Orkney’s ignorance of that language exposed him to two disgraceful blunders. When he had built the great tower of Scalloway in Zetland, he asked a clergyman for a motto, who supplied him with the following Latin words:—

“Cujus fundamen saxum est, domus illa manebit

Stabilis; et contra, si sit arena, perit.” The earl was highly pleased with this motto, not understanding that the secret meaning implied, that a house, raised by honourable and virtuous means, was as durable as if founded upon a rock; whereas one like his new castle of Scalloway, constructed by injustice and oppressive means, was like one founded on the faithless sands, and would soon perish. It is now a waste ruin, and bears the defaced inscription as if prophetic of the event.

A worse error was that which occurred in the motto over another castle on the island of Birasa, in Orkney, built by his father and repaired by himself. Here he was pleased to inscribe his father’s name and descent thus; — ROBERTUS STUARTUS, FILIUS JACOBI QUINTI, REX SCOTORUM, HOC EDIFICIUM INSTRUXIT. SIC FUIT, EST, ET ERIT. It was probably only the meaning of this inscription to intimate, that Earl Robert was the son of James V, King of Scotland, which was an undeniable truth; but putting Rex in the nominative instead of Regis, in the genitive, as the construction required, Earl Patrick seemed to state that his father had been the King of Scotland, and was gravely charged with high treason for asserting such a proposition.

If this was rather a severe punishment for false Latin, it must be allowed that Earl Patrick had deserved his condemnation by repeated acts of the greatest cruelty and oppression on the defenceless inhabitants of those remote islands. He was held in such terror by them, that one person who was brought as a witness against him, refused to answer any question till he had received a solemn assurance that the earl would never be permitted to return to Orkney. Being positively assured of this, he gave such a detail of his usurpation and crimes as made his guilt fully manifest.

For these offences the earl was tried and executed at Edinburgh; and his punishment struck such terror among the aristocracy, as made even those great lords, whose power lay in the most distant and inaccessible places of Scotland, disposed to be amenable to the royal authority. (6th February, 1614)

Having thus discussed the changes effected by the union of the crowns on the Borders, Highlands, and Isles, it remains to notice the effects produced in the Lowlands, or more civilized parts of the kingdom.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29